History was made on Jan. 19, 2023. The world’s first partly hydrogen-powered airplane made its first successful test flight. California- and U.K.-based aviation startup ZeroAvia flew its 19-seat prototype prop jet in England for a 10-minute flight of glory. This effort could be the first significant step toward viable, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
To showcase the power of hydrogen, ZeroAvia retrofitted two different jet engines on the prototype. The left-side jet used a hydrogen fuel cell developed by the company, while the right was a standard oil-burning jet. The results showed reliable flight performance that could spur further innovation in SAF development.
“This is a major moment, not just for ZeroAvia, but for the aviation industry as a whole, as it shows that true zero-emission commercial flight is only a few years away,” said Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia CEO and founder, in a press release. “The first flight of our 19-seat aircraft shows just how scalable our technology is and highlights the rapid progress of zero-emission propulsion.”
Flying Into The History Books
ZeroAvia’s aircraft took off from Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire, U.K., and was part of the HyFlyer II project, a U.K. government-funded endeavor. The company said all systems performed as expected, with no errors reported. The left-side jet was the largest ZeroAvia hydrogen engine tested to date. That’s a sign the company is getting closer to developing the technology for commercial use. Ideally, it will be ready by 2025.
Combatting emissions from the aviation industry has been tricky. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), air travel accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions.
Travel rates are expected to increase as the airline industry rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the need for cleaner energy sources is paramount. Not to mention, certain governing bodies like the European Commission are implementing new aviation fuel standards.
There has been experimentation with biofuels as SAFs and an emphasis on electrifying short-range travel. Finnish oil refiner Neste found a way to synthesize aviation fuel from discarded grease and animal fat. Swedish startup Heart Aerospace created a short-distance electric aircraft purchased by major carriers like United Airlines. Long-distance flights remain the biggest hurdle. Short-range/regional travel is the starting point for grander innovation.
Soaring Over Obstacles
Even in the age of fuel efficiency, plane manufacturers haven’t been able to squash emissions as much as they’d like to. That’s despite each generation of aircraft being 20% more efficient than older models. Furthermore, today’s planes produce 80% less carbon dioxide than the first commercial airliner.
The next problem is the cost of high-octane fuel. It adds up to 30% of aviation operating costs. If renewable alternatives are cheaper, a direct impact on consumers may be felt — less money going toward gasoline could equal lower ticket prices.
Aviation firms, like Airbus, are examining hydrogen as the most promising eco-friendly fuel solution, concentrating on two types of planes. First, combustion jets that can burn liquid hydrogen. The second uses gaseous hydrogen in a full-cell battery system, generating and sending electricity to the motor and propellers. The length of flights will determine which aircraft is used.
Piloting The First Steps
There is still a long way to go with hydrogen-powered aircraft. Nevertheless, ZeroAvia’s test flight is a testament to the ongoing development of cleaner air travel. The world is heading toward a carbon-neutral era, and quelling aviation emissions is a necessary step toward reaching it.
“This is only the beginning — we are building the future of sustainable, zero-climate impact aviation, Miftakhov commented. “Our approach is the best solution to accelerate clean aviation at scale.”